Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Miss Rumphius 30th anniversary edition cover

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982) is a beautiful picture book with a gentle message encouraging children to create beauty in the world. Cooney’s art is a mixture of full-bleed landscapes and spot illustration.

That said, this is a classic example of an old picture book with an environmental message which has not held up well, at least outside America.

Continue reading “Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney”

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban

Bread and Jam for Frances original cover

Bread and Jam for Frances is a picture book written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, first published in 1964 as a part of a series about a girl in the body of a badger, who lives in a middle class house and has access to all the spoils you’d expect of 1960s middle class Westerner.

I never came across this picture book as a kid, but a book with a similar plot must have really affected me because it was probably read once in class, yet I remember it profoundly: The book I’m talking about is Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy, one of the Pig Family picture books by Mary Rayner. This family of pigs might be considered the 1980s follow-up to the Hobans’ Frances stories. (I’ve taken a close look at Garth Pig and the Ice-cream Lady on this blog.)

In Rayner’s 1981 version of Bread and Jam for Frances, the mother pig of the Pig Family gets utterly sick and tired of her piglets hoeing into the tomato sauce so she feeds them nothing but tomato sauce until they crave a more varied diet.

No matter how carefully she flavored the stews or spiced the puddings, the piglets always squealed for tomato ketchup. She had always tried to stop them from having it, and make one bottle last a week, but it was always gobbled up by Monday and then the piglets would grumble until she went to the supermarket again.

“But things will be different soon,” thought Mother Pig happily. She reached down one of the big jars and emptied it into a huge soup tureen.

My mother was frequently complaining about the family using too much tomato sauce as well, which is probably why the story stuck with me. (Criticism was mostly directed at our father, though, who used sauce not only for flavour, but to cool hot food to a more scoffable temperature.)

DIDACTICISM AND FOOD PREFERENCES

Do these stories do what they intend, that is, to encourage children to eat a more wide and varied diet? One Goodreads reviewer of Rayner’s picture book said, “I read this to my daughter in the hopes of encouraging her to eat less ketchup, but all it did was make her want ketchup sandwiches.”

I doubt these stories work as intended. I do remember Rayner’s story, but I don’t remember going easy on the tomato sauce. They appeal to adults for didactic reasons, and to children for the carnivalesque element. Eating nothing but your favourite food is peak carnivalesque fun. The ending of both stories doesn’t resonate; doesn’t count.

Parenting culture has changed since the 1980s and certainly since the 1960s. For better or for worse, modern parents hand more food choice over to their children. I know plenty of kids who’d be quite happy to eat nothing but white bread and jam for weeks on end, possibly forever. Some of them have sensory issues around eating, which is the first thing I thought about Frances as she described and personified her eggs.

STORY STRUCTURE OF BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

PARATEXT

Frances is a fussy eater. In fact, the only thing she likes is bread and jam. So she’s delighted when Mother and Father grant her wish and give her bread and jam at every meal. This endearing story of how Frances faces unlimited bread and jam is a classic that will continue to be gobbled up by children, picky eaters, and parents everywhere.

marketing copy

Frances is also described as ‘America’s favourite badger’. (Frances is about as badger as Olivia is pig.)

SHORTCOMING

Frances has food preferences (possibly for sensory reasons) but she is a member of a family who have no tolerance for people who don’t eat what’s going.

Frances is disgusted by the egg.

DESIRE

Frances wants to eat bread and jam instead of eggs.

OPPONENT

Mother.

Is the school mate a plan or an ally. I find him insufferable. “Well, goodo for you,” I wanted to tell him, and, “I don’t remember asking for all those details about your damn lunch.”

PLAN

The mother has a secret plan, and we see it play out. The mother is basically a trickster, and I guess this is why she appeals to many mother co-readers; trickster mums are rare in children’s books.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

Frances grows more and more tired of bread and jam. When the mother serves Frances the same dinner as the rest of the family is having, Frances is so keen for something different that she eats it up without complaining. Mother has won this battle.

ANAGNORISIS

Frances realises that a varied diet is an interesting diet.

NEW SITUATION

Frances is eating a varied school lunch.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

We extrapolate that Frances is permanently fixed and that she’ll never look at bread and jam in the same way again.

RESONANCE

I was prompted to read Bread and Jam for Frances after seeing the following image memed around the Internet. It’s actually an abbreviated version of the relevant page, and almost functions as a tagline. In abbreviated form, without any context, this image is perfectly suited to modern meme culture. Perhaps it encapsulates our collective existential loneliness.

FURTHER READING

  • The Evolution of Breakfasts in Fiction. In the 1960s, America was in the middle of switching over from cooked breakfasts to breads and extruded cereals. Frances in this story has clearly been influenced by the modern Continental breakfast (probably from ads on the TV) but her old-school mother resists.
  • Egg Symbolism. I wonder how many humans across history have found eggs disgusting. Until battery farming, eggs were a hard won delicacy and an important element of many diets.
  • The idea that all of the other kids will get something, and that you, due to your own moral shortcoming will miss out, was utilised by Beatrix Potter in Peter Rabbit, and in many stories after that, including Little Golden Books’ super popular The Poky Little Puppy. But can you think of any modern picture books which use this kind of punishment plot, withholding food from children? This was certainly how I was brought up. But I suspect it’s had its day.
  • Russell and Lillian were married Americans who moved to England together in 1969. However, Lillian moved back to America about a year later. Russell stayed in England and married someone else in the mid 1970s. They each continued to have a full and varied career in children’s books, independently. Russell died in 2011. Lillian died in 1998.
  • See also my collected notes on The Mouse and His Child.
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950
“Children benefit from jam,” Soviet advertisement, 1950

Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek

Pet Milk Stuart Dybek

“Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek first appeared in the August 1984 edition of the New Yorker.

Jane Alison writes about “Pet Milk” in her chapter on spirals, in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode. “Pet Milk” is an example of a spiral structure. The structure of this story is part of its symbol web.



The first half of this lovely, very short story feels like dreamy memoir, but then it snaps into fictional focus. I’ve seen many people read it with delight, but recently a student said the story would be fine if Dybek just cut the first half. Yet in “Pet Milk” the first half, the memoiristic part, ferries us to the “story”: memory winds and winds until it reaches a small but marvelous moment. How, formally, memory leads to story shows interesting things about the story’s structure.

Jane Alison

PET MILK

Jane Alison also explains that Pet Milk refers to milk preserved in a can. This product was more popular in America before refrigeration.

I’m glad she told me that — we are both from a similar area originally, and I was thinking this story would be about milk you give to pets, or perhaps milk you express from your pets.

In 1923, the Helvetia Milk Condensing was renamed the Pet Milk Company after its signature product “Our Pet Evaporated Cream”.

Wikipedia

We have lots of brand names which have come to stand for the product here in Australia as well — Doona, Texta etc. The problem with brand names as proxy for products: the word doesn’t always translate well overseas, or across generations. PET milk sales peaked in 1950, apparently. I wonder if modern Americans are more likely to think of Milnot when it comes to canned milk products. (Here in Australia I think of Carnation or Nestle.)

KING ALPHONSE

The narrator and Kate go to the Pilsen often enough that a waiter, Rudi, pours them each a King Alphonse at the end of every meal: but he doesn’t like how the narrator stares at the patterns in the liqueur glass. It isn’t a microscope. Rudie says: “Drink.”

Jane Alison

I had no idea what a King Alphonse is made of, but Absolut Vodka has a YouTube video on how to make one.

STORYWORLD

“Pet Milk” is a Chicago story — the lovers are on the El train, a.k.a. the Purple Line or the Evanston Line. The narrator is second-generation American (an annoyingly ambiguous term) with mention of his Polish grandmother. Her habit of using Pet milk as a stand-in for cream is seen as an odd quirk, possibly because of her age.

The Coast of Chicago Stuart Dybek cover
“Pet Milk” appears in this collection, published 1990

The story was published in the early 1980s, and the narrator is looking back. Perhaps this incident on the train happened in the swinging 60s. We don’t know the narrator’s name let alone how old he is at time of writing, but I’m guessing about 20 years have since passed. This is enough time for memories to start to swirl into each other, and for certain details to stand out while the ‘plot’ of events fades. For another example of how memory makes detail symbolically significant, read “What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro.

(Recent, semi-autobiographical events don’t make for good fiction. When doing writing exercises with young adult students, try to persuade them to write about an event which happened at least seven years ago. Word to the wise: tell them not to write about an injury or a birthday party, or you’ll get 30 stories about stubbed toes, broken arms and birthday presents.)

I think that the characters are fascinated with a sense of history, too. We like the story because it’s from a period outside of our own, but they’re equally obsessed with some imagined history. The narrator makes constant reference to ‘the old country’ and they play at glamor by dining in an ‘old world’ restaurant, knowing full well that they are heading towards separate but exciting futures.

There’s such a sense of history to it — either in physical objects, like his grandmother’s staticky radio, or in the city itself, which was then a mutating mishmash of working-class Polish, Irish and Mexican neighborhoods. Everything comes from somewhere and leaves a physical stamp on the city. Which says something about how the relationship he describes with Kate — it’s not something that happened over Gchat.

Bookside Table

It’s very common for short stories to include a strong sense of history. Alice Munro and Annie Proulx are experts at it, for starters. I think this emphasis on history is especially important in a short story, which can otherwise feel so fleeting and, perhaps, risks being forgettable.

Dybek also expands time by reminding us that this romance was a snapshot of his past which has not continued into the present.

Even in the memory there are the constant projections to a time without her. The sense of the impermanence is part of the pleasure. He says “It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with.” So even as it’s wrapped up in memory, it revolves around the sweetness of that first time, the sense of longing and knowing that something is ever out of reach. Like the past itself.

Bookside Table

TRAIN SYMBOLISM

And what of the train? Why on a train? Trains are so often a metaphor for how life ploughs on, and in hindsight, events so often feel like fate. Because the extradiegetic narrator, looking back, knows that this was one part of his life, the metaphor of trains stopping at stations serve to show us how segmented life feels in hindsight. This was the period he was with this particular girlfriend, in the throes of limerance. That never lasts, and neither does a train journey.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “PET MILK”

It has been pointed out that ‘not a lot happens’.

The whole story is very short, not a great deal happens (although what happens is strangely moving) and so it’s hard to describe the plot without ruining any of its effect.

Daniel David Wallace

In a book, the story is only five-ish pages with a negligible “plot” in the traditional sense. But the scope of its effect never fails to leave me breathless, especially with the way food and memory mingle and are intertwined.

Leslie at Work in Progress

It’s important to divide this short story into two distinct parts. Jane Alison describes the slip into the second part:

[W]e slip from the dreamy, gazing zone to a single incident one evening at the Pilsen. It’s the narrator’s twenty-second birthday, and he and Kate meet for champagne and oysters; then, flushed with desire that steams from the page, they hurry from the restaurant to the El. But they can’t wait, so lock themselves in a compartment and make love.

— Jane Alison

THE SYMBOL WEB OF “PET MILK”

Jane Alison does an excellent job of helping readers to look deeper for connections in a piece of work. I had not made all of these connections between the various objects mentioned in “Pet Milk”. It’s not just about swirling, but about containment within a frame:

Look at how we got from the swirling recollections to the single moment. Rudi gives a clue when he nudges the narrator to stop gazing at patterns. Yet patterns have brought us here. We move from Pet milk swirling in coffee, to snowflakes swirling within a window frame, to voices and music swirling inside an old radio, to liqueur swirling in a glass. Always something oddly alive or motile swirling in a small enclosure. And Pet milk? It’s the streaming liquid of life, caught and conserved. These patterns have led us, via memory that’s also swirling, to the moment they sought, when Rudi says, Don’t stare, but drink life and live. And now the more vivid part of the story bears a way of reading it: through the image of swirling milk.

In scene: at the restaurant, the narrator looks at Kate’s loved, live face reflected in the glass of a painting: the two slurp oysters slushed with champagne in shells. These items, too, are kin to what’s come before: streaming milk, swirling flakes, a breathing girl’s face in a frame, fresh oysters and bubbling champagne in a shell: vitality held. One image of this contained swirling has followed another in a movement of mind that spirals: too, the roundabout motion of memory, until the narrator reaches the main moment: when he and Kate, flooded with desire, make love in a closed train compartment.

Jane Alison

FURTHER READING

  • For another short story with a structure echoing its symbol web, read “See Saw” by Katherine Mansfield. The story keeps shifting its viewpoint and is structured like a see-saw.
  • For a Mansfield short story about trains and limerance check out “Something Childish But Very Natural“.
  • And for a Mansfield story making heavy use of the symbolism of containment, check out “Prelude“, and notice how Kezia is connected throughout the narrative to boxes and small containers.

Back For Christmas by John Collier

Back for Christmas by John Collier

As soon as I read “Back For Christmas” by John Collier (1939) I thought of Roald Dahl. Sure enough, I google both names in a single search and learn that, for Dahl, among many other male writers, Collier is listed as a heavy influence.



Credit where credit is due, though: Roald Dahl’s two most famous short stories — “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one — was actually plotted by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame. I learned that listening to the interview between Neil Gaiman and Tim Ferris. (The other Dahl story plotted by Fleming is “Parson’s Pleasure”, about the evil antique dealer.)

Why is that list of Collier-influenced authors entirely male? That’s not to say women haven’t also been influenced by Collier, but this does feel like a very masculine story.

I have a working theory on that. This sort of story, in which a criminal trickster type gets his comeuppance after a twist at the end, is closely related to the tall tale, and the tall tale tradition is very masculine. That begs the question, though.

Why are tall tales so popular with men? Masculine humour tends to be more about establishing hierarchies than feminine humour, and there’s nothing more hierarchical than a character at the top of his profession, beloved among his fictional peers, ending up on his knees in prison (we extrapolate).

This story is admirable partly because of the swift pacing. Notice how Collier takes us across continents with nothing in the way of boring logistical detail. And once the outcome is revealed, story over. Get in, get out, short story writers are told. Collier omits the entire New Situation phase. He can, because he’s given us all the information we need.

I considered saving this story until the Christmas season, but it’s not a Christmasy story at all. It is set three months before Christmas — the gift-giving of Christmas is useful to the plot and that is its function.

If you’re after a heartwarming Christmas story try “The Gift of the Magi“. O. Henry’s story also involves a twist in the tail, but rarely, that twist says something positive about humankind. These two stories fit at each end of a single continuum — optimistic at one end, pessimistic at the other. “The Gift of the Magi” is sort of like a biter-bit inversion story.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BACK FOR CHRISTMAS”

SHORTCOMING

Mr Carpenter is clearly high on the psychopathic spectrum. At least, that’s how we might fictionally diagnose him today. This isn’t his shortcoming, though. I’m reminded of Kevin Dutton’s proposition in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, in which Dutton argues that psychopathy confers certain advantages (for the psychopathic themselves). Top doctors (especially surgeons) can benefit in their work. They don’t tend to have the same fear response as the neurotypical population. The amygdala tends to be under-aroused.

So I’m not going to say that his sociopathy is Mr Carpenter’s shortcoming. His shortcoming is that he doesn’t appreciate his wife. I mean that in several senses of the word: He doesn’t like how organised she is, and he doesn’t realise the extent of her organisation. Her organisational skills annoy him. In one short paragraph we learn that his main beef with her is that he feels she over-schedules his life. (That is her entire job as housewife to a doctor, back in 1939.)

DESIRE

Mr Carpenter, it is suddenly revealed, is moving from England to America. He is taking this opportunity to kill his wife. He wants to start a new life with a new woman. He wants to stay on in America, where he justifiably believes (in 1939) he will never be caught.

OPPONENT

Mrs Carpenter doesn’t realise she is his opponent, but she is.

PLAN

After the murder itself, Mr Carpenter’s plans make up the bulk of the story. The narrator offers a look inside his head. It is a point of pride that I don’t understand how a sociopath thinks, and you probably don’t, either. That’s why this phase of the story is so important.

What makes him think he can get away with this? Why would a man kill his own wife? The interest of the story lies in answering these questions.

BIG STRUGGLE

As in a story like “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, the murder happens swiftly and quickly — the story is about what happens after. There is a symbolic Near Death Moment:

He threw himself down in the coal dust on the floor and said, “I’m through. I’m through.”

But no meaningful Anagnorisis follows. This is just him panicking. To find the structural Battle scene, look for the part that comes before the Anagnorisis. Except there is no Anagnorisis in this one. The point of this character is that he is so full of confidence that he never once doubts that he’ll get away with murder.

SELF-REVELATION

Mr Carpenter has no meaningful Anagnorisis, but the twist at the end leads directly to a satisfying Plot-revelation for the reader. (And also for him as a character, though his response is left off the page.)

Comic characters don’t often have anagnorises. That’s part of what makes them funny — their enduring stupidity. This lack of self-awareness is part of what makes “Back For Christmas” a darkly comic tale.

NEW SITUATION

“Back For Christmas” is a good example of a story which lets the reader extrapolate the New Situation.

The title is meaningful, but only at the end. Mr Carpenter will indeed be back for Christmas, but he will have been summoned by police detectives, alerted to the presence of a dead body after the excavators visit the house for a renovation and dig up Mrs Carpenter’s corpse.

FORESHADOWING TECHNIQUES IN “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”

I’ve written about literary shadowing elsewhere. In stories with surprise endings, the writer must be expert at foreshadowing. There’s a fine line between giving too much versus not enough.

How did Collier do it so masterfully in this story?

First of all, there’s the meaningful, clue-y title, mentioned above.

“He shall be back,” says Mrs Carpenter when we first meet her. She says this before the reader is told how very resourceful and organised she is. If we fully remembered what she had said, we’d know, after getting to know her later, that what she says goes. But we sort of half-forget detail like this. Instead, it all seems to somehow make sense after we learn the ending. (It is significant that every one of their acquaintances believes Mrs Carpenter. They know her much better than we do.) The takeaway writing tip: You can invert parts of the story in this way. Collier could have made the outcome more obvious by FIRST setting Mrs Carpenter up as a reliable type for whom plans always work THEN have her tell everyone (and us) that they definitely WOULD be back for Christmas, but showing us the other way round is the perfect degree of subtle.

“Anything may happen,” says Dr Carpenter in retort. This snippet of dialogue does double duty: The reader fully expects something to happen (as it always does in good stories) and it therefore functions as a suspenseful hook. But it’s also ironic in hindsight, because the ‘anything’ does not line up with Dr Carpenter’s expected outcome. There’s a meaningful gap between what he thinks and what actually happens.

This story would not have worked as well if Collier had left out the backstory of how Mr Carpenter has been ‘trying to scrape out a bin for wine’ and it would not have worked had he left out its addendum: ‘he had told Hermione’. In hindsight, we understand that Hermione saw him scraping out a barrel meaning to put her in it, but her interpretation was different: She thought he was developing an interest in wine, so arranged a renovation of the cellar as his Christmas present. It is important when writing a tale like this to attach a connecting thread of backstory to the simplicity of your poetic justice by explaining exactly how the pieces have come together in this way. It doesn’t take much, as shown here by Collier. It’s done in a single paragraph, embedded into action and forward motion.

There’s also a ticking clock, which Collier uses to divert our attention from this obvious clue about the barrel. The ticking clock is ‘the ringing’ from the friends, who will come back in half an hour.

Imagery works as foreshadowing here, too:

The Doctor was scarcely aware of the ringing as a sound. It was like a spike of iron pushed slowly up through his stomach. It went on until it reached his brain.

This should tell us that the doctor will come to a sorry end, but it doesn’t, directly. And that’s why it still works.

POETIC JUSTICE

Importantly, Mr Carpenter’s plot comes full circle, which gives a sense of ending. Seems simple in post hoc analysis, but it’s important that Collier chose to write such a direct and simple plot: A man buries dead wife in cellar; wife has planned a cellar renovation. The key is in the simplicity of that. This is poetic justice. Readers find poetic justice very satisfying.

Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed.

This has more to do with the supernatural belief of karma and heavily retribution than with legal justice. Poetic justice is the highly satisfying emotional response we feel when the innocent is vindicated and the guilty punished when the law doesn’t accomplish it.

In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap

Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

In C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the big struggle in Archenland. When he jumps down while shouting “The bolt of Tash falls from above,” his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging, humiliated and trapped.

In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a concentration camp commander’s son is mistakenly caught up with inmates rounded up for gassing.

In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Sweetest Fig, a cold-hearted dentist is cruel to his dog and ends up getting his comeuppance.

Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is a picture book in which a wolf builds a contraption to catch his guests and eat them, but he ends up getting trapped in it himself. His friends end up eating him without knowing.

A lot of Paul Jennings stories end with poetic justice.

I’ve written more about punishment in children’s literature here. A segment of modern book buyers avoid stories in which characters get punished at the end. You can see that by reading consumer reviews — bad behaviour followed by severe punishment is not always seen as suitable for kids. Others take delight in the very same endings.